By SHANNON O. WELLS
In the wake of two reported sexual assaults on or near campus since mid-September — bringing the number of sexual-assault crime reports this academic year to three — Senate Council devoted a substantial part of its Oct. 13 meeting to discussing campus safety challenges and how they are being addressed.
Following a crime alert regarding an incident in the Cathedral of Learning around 4:20 p.m. Oct. 3, more than 100 Pitt students gathered outside the building on Oct. 7 to condemn the attack and call for improvements to ensure student safety.
The report said a man, appearing to be “college-aged,” sexually assaulted a woman in a Cathedral stairwell before fleeing in an unknown direction. On Sept. 17, Pitt Police assisted the city of Pittsburgh in investigating a sexual assault reported in the 200 block of North Dithridge Street between midnight and 1 a.m.
Pitt Police Chief James Loftus told Senate Council that emailed crime alerts and the resulting tips have helped the investigations of these and an earlier sexual assault case a great deal.
“With those crime alerts, we've received a number of tips from students, faculty and staff that runs the whole gamut: folks who are calling or emailing or submitting anonymously information that they think might be useful,” he said. “There was a case in a residence hall that has moved out of the investigative and prosecution stage, and it's moved toward the administrative investigation within the University.”
Of the Dithridge Street incident on Sept. 17, Loftus said Pittsburgh police have a “very tentative ID” on a suspect and are moving toward a possible arrest. The more recent Cathedral of Learning incident, meanwhile, has generated “a lot of information,” Loftus indicated. “We've received a lot of tips about this.”
Posing the question of whether the recent incidents indicate a “crime wave” after statistics showed a progressive decline in crime since the 2010s, Loftus made no excuses.
“That's fine, statistics being what they are,” he said, “but we have those three people, those three victims, their families, their friends, their circle and everyone else who's walking around this campus — including my two daughters — who are concerned about what has happened and concerned about what's likely or possibly — excuse me, what will happen in the future.”
With augmentation from Allied Universal guard personnel, Pitt Police has stepped up security in the Cathedral, increasing walking patrols and “static” patrol positions on the Fifth Avenue side as well as in the building’s stairwells. Upgrades to video surveillance systems are in the works to make them “a little more comprehensive than what we currently have,” Loftus said, adding that the more than 1,000 cameras already on campus “have been great aids to us in solving crimes.”
Such measures have prompted conflicting perspectives from students and parents, he noted, with some expressing positivity about the more visible security, while others call it oppressive for an open learning environment. Loftus shared typical comments from the latter camp, such as “’I don't want to see a cop everywhere I go to school,’” he said. “’I didn’t come here for that. I want to feel some sense of freedom.’”
“All of … what's been put into place and what's liable to be put in place further is my responsibility,” he added. “I have to make that call based upon my training and experience, to try to put the best cadre out there to address this situation. So that's where we're at.”
At a Town Hall forum on campus safety and sexual assault held Oct. 19 in the Alumni Hall auditorium, Loftus reiterated many of these points and engaged with students and various Pitt officials. Students asked Loftus and other leaders questions and shared a wide range of concerns including:
The pros and cons of the higher number of officers visible in and around the Cathedral.
The response, demeanor and level of engagement of Pitt safety officers.
How campus crimes, including sexual assault, are recorded and reported, and how statistics are utilized.
The safety and fair treatment of students of color and in the LGBTQIA community.
Access to support and mental health resources for victims.
How sexual assault accusations against a student are typically handled and investigated.
Statistics vs. perception
Thanking Loftus, Pitt Police, student leaders and others, Kenyon Bonner, vice provost for Student Affairs, said at Senate Council, “we’re doing a lot of listening at this point, and really working with our students to figure out the best solutions to support them.”
“One case of sexual assault (or) misconduct is one too many on our campus,” Bonner said. “Unfortunately and sadly, we're not there, and even more so outside of Pitt in our society. So, this is work that we take very seriously. This is work that we've been at for many years, and there's obviously a lot more work to do for our community to make sure (that) everyone is respected, dignified and we treat each other accordingly.”
Bonner, during an earlier meeting of the University Senate’s Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy Committee (EIADAC), vowed to re-examine Pitt’s SafeRider program, which offers after-dark campus shuttles to students under limited circumstances. Students, he noted, have complained about restrictions or finding SafeRider vehicles unavailable when needed, while students have at times overwhelmed the program by “using it as an Uber service.”
Bonner also pointed out that Pitt this year went from an opt-in to an opt-out crime-notification system for students, faculty and staff, making people more aware this semester of incidents and interpreting results as a crime wave. City of Pittsburgh data shows crime reports for Oakland have steadily decreased from a high in 2012 and are now down by more than a third as of last year.
“Crime in Oakland has actually decreased precipitously” and is lower than in most metro areas, he said, while echoing concerns by Clyde Wilson Pickett, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, that students would have reservations about greater police presence or surveillance.
From information to action
At the Senate Council meeting, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher touted the importance of information sharing and intervention-based prevention approaches. But while surveys have shown ongoing increases in awareness, “we haven't really made meaningful differences yet on some of the underlying contributing factors,” he said. “So I just want to be clear that more information and actionable and useful information is a necessary but not sufficient condition.”
Praising the recent response from the student body as “positive” and “immediately about problem solving,” Gallagher still said he’s concerned about turning the information “into just causing fear” because “we could move the opposite way.”
Gallagher noted the renewed sense of urgency the recently reported incidents have sparked. He said rather than “panic,” he wants to “increase our resolve to move forward.”
And while “everything, really, is on the table,” he cautioned that no approach, “whether it's policing or technology or badging — or even training — is a panacea. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. And we should be willing to try anything, but we should be honest about assessing whether it works (and) be very frank about what the unintended consequences of this are.”
Senate Council President Robin Kear devoted most of her regular report to addressing the recent sexual assault incidents.
“Sexual violence is unacceptable on our campus, anywhere in our Pitt community,” she said. “Last week's crime alert touched a deep nerve in me and in many others in our community, and it made me angry. … I can understand the pain and the powerlessness that some of our students are expressing and the desire for acknowledgement and action.”
Kear praised the emphasis Gallagher, during his tenure as chancellor, has placed on “talking more earnestly and openly about how to recognize, report and reduce sexual harassment and violence.”
The administration and Senate have taken this very seriously, Kear said, “and I appreciate all these efforts. We have passed updated University policies. There are better-funded offices and more positions to assist with this work.”
She praised faculty attention to cases involving violations of federal Title IX sex-based discrimination laws, intervention and other training offered by Pitt Student Affairs, “bystander understanding of sexual consent” and other related programs.
“Of course, our Pitt community exists in a larger societal context,” Kear acknowledged. “And while we hope to eradicate sexual violence, we know that it continues, but we can work every day to make our community secure, safe and responsive as it can be in the way that (assault) survivors want. It's our job as faculty to discuss the nuances of issues of sexuality and consent, security surveillance and its impacts in our classrooms and educational spaces.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.